Veteran sidemen on the Twin Cities jazz scene forge a collective voice in a new trio that celebrates its debut album Monday night at Icehouse.
In the Good Vibes Trio’s reinvention of “Jump Monk” by jazz great Charles Mingus, bassist Chris Bates nestles a riff tight beneath the melody as it unfurls through the plush beats of vibraphonist Dave Hagedorn and a fan-dance of cymbal splashes by drummer Phil Hey.
It is a notably fresh arrangement of a 59-year-old classic. And it is no coincidence, given the three players involved.
For decades, Bates, Hey and Hagedorn have been distinctive fixtures on the local jazz scene — first-call sidemen with an ability to inject their unique flavor into whatever a leader might demand. Any two have shared a stage or recording studio dozens of times, and occasionally all three have found themselves in the same ensemble, such as the classical-meets-jazz group Bach to Bop and reedman Pete Whitman’s X-tet.
Over and over, something clicked.
The intuitive chemistry among kindred spirits can be especially acute in jazz, a discipline that relies on both deep scholarship and spontaneous improvisation. Bates is the son of a jazz educator, while Hey and Hagedorn are college professors who spend nearly as much time honing their art in the club as they do dispensing wisdom in the classroom.
“There was something special there,” said Bates, “but we were always doing music for other folks.” So they pruned away the leaders to probe their independent common ground, finding those good vibes by founding the Good Vibes Trio.
On Monday night at Icehouse in south Minneapolis, they will celebrate their self-titled debut. As might be expected, the album will delight the jazz cognoscenti. But there is something inherently charming and accessible about the shifting, sifting trade-off of lead and supportive roles among the trio, which turns a potential weakness — three essentially percussive instruments without the harmonic versatility of a horn or piano — into a signature virtue.
“That stuff was conscious, but done organically,” Bates said. “We knew we wanted to approach it with a specific kind of [shared, sophisticated] rhythm. I was pushing for new arrangements, but sometimes the best way to do that was to play the material as you would at a casual gig or party and see how it unfolds. I have a habit of making notes after performances, and so after four performances I might have two or three sentences on how a song unfolded, so we could use the successful elements and eliminate the unsuccessful ones.”
They recorded 14 songs and used 11 — a mix of original songs by each member, along with fresh takes on relatively obscure tracks by well-known artists such as Mingus, John Coltrane and Freddie Hubbard. Ironically, two of the omissions were compositions by Ornette Coleman, a fundamental influence on the band, as Hey was taught by longtime Coleman drummer Ed Blackwell and Hagedorn played with Coleman acolyte Karl Berger (whose tribute song “Ornette” did make the cut).
Bassist/composer Mingus is another strong influence, not only because Good Vibes covers his songs “Jump Monk” and “Canon” — the latter opening with a riveting Bates bass solo — but, as Bates said, “Mingus and Ornette both emphasized the freedom to play off the chord changes [in a song] and express your originality.”
One highlight is Hubbard’s “Up Jumped Spring,” spiced by a distinctive Afro-Latin tilt and an extended solo by Hey. “That’s a 6/8 rhythm, which is an African thing,” Bates said. “We knew Phil was going to use that; we just didn’t know which song, and this one fit.”
Bates is also partial to the opening track, “Fairy Tale,” by David Berkman, a pianist and former Hagedorn cohort. “It just leaped off, with no solos, just us trading phrases. It leads off the record because it establishes us as a collective trio.”
It is a collective that Bates, the trio’s youngest member, clearly cherishes.
“I first met Dave when I was 7 and he was teaching with my dad. I met Phil in my early 20s, when I was with the Little Big Band [a much-lauded local ensemble later renamed the Motion Poets]. He would take us aside and talk to us as a peer, very respectfully, and his mentorship turned into friendship. For me to have the chance to play and record with these guys is very special to me.”
That affection and rapport, born of knowing and challenging musical traditions, is evident throughout the new record. The Good Vibes emanate.